Our Gap Year

Planning a gap year trip is no easy task. We spent a lot of time staring at maps, reading travel sites, and formulating our plan before we hit the open road. To help give you some inspiration for planning your grand journey, here’s a recap of what we did with our 14 months of travel:

Three Months in the USA

We had an awesome 3 months traveling across the US.
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We had an awesome 3 months traveling across the US.

Our long, strange trip started back in the US with a coast-to-coast journey lasting three months. Here’s how it all went down, from San Francisco all the way to Boston.

West Coast Road Trip

Naturally, we began by going straight from the airport in San Francisco to the Grateful Dead Meet-up at the Movies, followed by four nights in a row of Phish (3 in SF and 1 in LA). With a base in LA, we spent a few days camping out at Joshua Tree NP and then took a beach vacation in Venice.

From there it was on to Vegas for Rachel’s first visit to Sin City. We caught a few shows, hit an awesome buffet, tried some of the thrill rides, and of course, got a little weird. In Vegas, we rented a car and embarked on a road trip full of camping and hiking in the national parks – Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, and Arches.

While in Moab, Utah, we also tried rafting, canyoneering, and skydiving. Our west coast swing ended with nine days in Denver – visiting friends, hiking in the Rockies, taking in the nightlife, and seeing three more Phish shows at Dick’s.

Family Time

From Denver, we flew to Charlotte to spend time with Rachel’s family. During our time in NC and TN, we had some fun in both Boone and Asheville, went tubing down the Nolichucky River, visited friends in Nashville, and finally took Sasha to his first UT game.

We made a quick stop in Detroit to say hi to Sasha’s family and see Widespread Panic, and then immediately embarked on the next leg of our adventure.

East Coast Bus Tour

Thanks to the Megabus, we ended up getting tickets from Detroit-Pittsburgh-Philly-New York-Boston for just $10 each.

In Steel City, we drank in a bar until they kicked us out, and then stayed up all night in the famous Three Brothers sandwich shop until our bus to Philly left. Rachel’s first trip to the City of Brotherly Love was mainly so we could catch the Disco Biscuits, but we also hit South Street, the art museum, and of course, munched on cheesesteaks.

In NYC, we stayed with Sasha’s aunt and uncle, did a few historical walks, a bit of sightseeing, lots of drinking and eating, and saw the Book of Mormon.

The final stop was Beantown, where we got our fill of sports with a Red Sox playoff game for $10 each and the Wings at the Bruins. We also walked the Freedom Trail, took cheesy tourist photos at Cheers, ate some clam chowdah, and did our best not to park our car in the yard.

Yes, Michigan – The Feeling is Forever!

Back in the Mitten, we were fortunate enough to catch the Tigers in two playoff games – we beat Oakland in one and lost to Boston in the other.

On the banks of the red cedar, MSU’s homecoming was exactly that – Sasha’s first game since ’07 when he was a student and Rachel’s first entirely.

The rest of the time was spent doing the usual Michigan thing – eating Coney, drinking Bell’s, and hanging out with friends.

Hampton Comes Alive

When Phish announced three shows in Hampton, VA, we just had to make it to the Mothership.

We borrowed Sasha’s mom’s car, drove to DC for an overnight stay and a whirlwind tour of the National Mall, and then went Phishin’ with the boys for a few epic nights.

A Monster Mashup

The last stop of our great American journey was Milwaukee, where we saw Umphrey’s McGee do their annual Monster Mashup Halloween shows. Sticking to the theme, we went as Luke SkyWalker Texas Ranger and Princess Dianna Ross. Sasha achieved a live music milestone on the 3rd night – his 100th UM show.

Before flying back to Asia, we got to enjoy an amazing meal and drinks with friends in Chicago.

Although some holier-than-thou backpackers may claim that traveling in your own country doesn’t count, we couldn’t disagree more.

As Americans, we come from a huge country with diverse landscapes and cultures. Getting to backpack our way across the country – stopping in some of the most famous cities and most stunning national parks – was an incredible experience and one that we’d recommend all Americans do at some point.

Having completed our coast-to-coast tour of the US, it was time to head back to the other side of the world, where the real adventure would begin.

Seven Months in Southeast Asia

We hit the Banana Pancake Trail running!
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We hit the Banana Pancake Trail running!

China to Vietnam

Walking from China into Vietnam... no big deal.
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Walking from China into Vietnam… no big deal.

The time we spent back in China was hectic, to say the least.

First, we had to move all of our crap out of our old Beijing apartment, pack it all up, and get it down to Kunming. In the Spring City, we only had a few days to secure our visas for Vietnam and find a place to store all of our worldly belongings.

It was stressful and chaotic, but it worked out in the end as we boarded a bus for ‘Nam.

Good Morning, Vietnam!

Our visas granted us 30 days in Vietnam, and that’s exactly how many we used.

We traversed the country from north to south overland in an action-packed trip that saw us: hike to minority villages, cruise along Ha Long Bay, ride motorbikes through the Central Highlands, and visit a floating market in the Mekong Delta, among other things.

Vietnam gets a lot of hate in the travel blogosphere, but we had an amazing time and would highly recommend an extended trip there.

Christmas in Cambodia

We decided to maximize our stay in Cambodia as well, spending an entire month traveling around the country. After the madness that was Vietnam, we took things a bit slower there.

From hiking high above Kep to partying in Sihanoukville to exploring the ruins at Angkor, it was an awesome experience. For all the details, check out our itinerary for one month in Cambodia.

Loungin’ in Laos

On our second trip to the forgotten country of the Banana Pancake trail, we traveled from south to north on a 3-week trip full of nature, adventure, and partying with friends.

It started out with a chill stay on Don Det in the 4,000 islands, followed by a motorbike loop around Pakse and a 2-day trek around Savannakhet. We met up with Sasha’s brother and some friends in Vientiane, where the party got kicked into high gear.

Together, we had a great time in the tubing in Vang Vieng, exploring Luang Prabang, and trekking in Nong Khiaw.

Adventures in Northern Thailand

After perhaps the most terrifying ride of our life, we crossed into northern Thailand to begin the next part of the journey.

In Chiang Rai, we visited the “heaven & hell of architecture” at the White Temple and Black House. Next was Chiang Mai, where we did an elephant training camp and took part in a Buddhist festival before heading out to tackle the 1,864 curves of the famed Mae Hong Son loop on motorbikes.

We saw some incredible landscapes, explored caves around Soppong, and fell in love with the mountainous hippie town of Pai. A dose of culture came by visiting Sukhothai Historical Park, and then we took it easy for a week with a nice apartment in Bangkok to gear up for Myanmar.

Magnificent Myanmar

Of all the places we visited during our trip around SE Asia, none was more fascinating than Myanmar. The country formerly known as Burma remains unique and relatively free of outside influence – no Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, or Starbucks here.

During our 3-week stay, we went on a great day tour around Mandalay, took one of the great train rides of the world, hit a temple fair, explored Inle Lake, rode around the temples of Bagan, and finished in the former capital of Yangon.

We would have stayed longer, but a lack of reliable internet and air conditioning led us back to Bangkok.

Scuba and Songkran in South Thailand

Back in the Thai capital, we rented another apartment for a week so we could recuperate and Sasha could get some work done. We also got out and saw some of the sights we hadn’t been to in previous visits, and of course, partook in the city’s infamous nightlife.

From there, it was time for Rachel’s absolute favorite – the Thai islands. Starting off with six days on Koh Tao, we got our scuba diving certificate and joined the island’s insane pub crawl. Then it was on to Koh Pha Ngan, where we raged the Jungle Party, Full Moon Party, and the epic water fight that occurs during Songkran (Thai New Year).

On the other side of Thailand, we spent a few days chilling in Ton Sai and Ao Nang and then visited the undeveloped Koh Tarutao for cycling and hiking free of the bucket-schwilling backpackers.

A Standard First-Time Malaysia Trip

For our first time in Malaysia, we stuck very much to the beaten path.

First up was Georgetown, the UNESCO heritage site and capital of Penang Island. There, we took in the city’s interesting public art and historical buildings.

Next was a few days in the Central Highlands, where we enjoyed the cooler temperatures and the stunning views.

In the capital of Kuala Lumpur, we visited the Batur Caves for a bit of monkey business, checked out the KL Tower, and feasted on delicious Indian food. Finally, we spent a few days taking in the former Portuguese city of Malacca before catching a flight out of Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta.

Falling in Love with Indonesia

Our previous trip to Bali in 2012 was what inspired this crazy journey to begin with so we were thrilled to get back to Indonesia and stay for a much longer time. With 45 days, we began in the capital of Jakarta and went overland and sea across Java to Bali, as well as the Gili Islands. 

There were too many highlights in this trip to name them all, but a few that come to mind are: watching the sunset atop the world’s largest Buddhist temple, motorbiking in the stunning Dieng Plateau, hiking down into a crater to see blue fire, catching the fascinating cultural shows in Ubud, and diving in the Gilis.

Sasha even took a week of Indonesian classes and was able to communicate at a basic level with the locals, which made our trip that much more enjoyable. We liked it so much, in fact, that we’re moving to Bali so he can continue his studies in Indonesian language & culture.

Summer in The USA

Had to get home for some summer fun.
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Had to get home for some summer fun.

Although the original plan was to head to Borneo and then the Philippines, cheap flights and Phish tour dates convinced us to spend July back in the States. After a brief stop in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, we flew to Detroit just in time for the 4th of July.

Next was a family trip up to Sasha’s old summer stomping grounds in Petoskey, full of mini-golf and relaxation. Back in the D, we got a party bus with 25 of our closest friends and caught Sasha’s first hometown Phish show (55th overall). After three more shows in the Windy City, we headed to TN to spend time with Rachel’s family and catch yet another Phish concert in Charlotte.

Finally, we joined a few friends and drove up to the Gathering of the Vibes festival, our first American fest in three years. It was an amazing weekend with some of our favorite bands, and we’re so glad we decided to go.

A quick pit stop in NYC allowed us to catch a Tigers-Yankees game, and then a long bus ride brought us back to Detroit to celebrate Sasha’s birthday and catch our flight back to Hong Kong.

A China Adventure

Hong Kong to Kunming Overland

3 weeks from HK to our new home in Kunming.
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3 weeks from HK to our new home in Kunming.

With a few weeks before we could move into our new apartment in Kunming, we decided to take the opportunity to do a trip across southern China.

In Hong Kong, we visited the Giant Buddha on Lantau Island before crossing back to the mainland in Shenzhen. We then met Sasha’s brothers in Xiamen for a beach vacation, China style, followed by a few days of exploring the amazing tulou villages of Fujian province.

After an overnight stay in Guangzhou, we headed to Yangshuo – one of Sasha’s favorite places in China – so that Rachel could finally check it out. Over three days, we explored the dreamlike landscapes of Guangxi on bicycles and a motorbike, caught the unbelievable Impression performance, and cruised up the Li River on a bamboo raft.

Next was a necessary overnight stay in Guilin before two days of hiking in the awe-inspiring Longji rice terraces. An overnight train brought us to our new home in Kunming, where we promptly moved our stuff into our new place and passed out from exhaustion.

Encore, Encore!

One last hoorah before getting back to work.
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One last hoorah before getting back to work.

After over a year on the road, we weren’t exactly ready to settle down. Once we had the apartment all setup and a job lined up for Rachel, we decided to squeeze in one more adventure and finish the Yunnan trip we had started back in 2011.

First was a few days in Lijiang, an incredibly scenic and touristy old town. Then we tackled the legendary Tiger Leaping Gorge, where our trip was almost ruined by a pesky village dog biting Rachel.

A night in Haba village was basically a failure, as we didn’t even visit the scenic area we went there for, but it allowed us to rest up a bit before heading to Shangri-la. In this Tibetan region of northern Yunnan, we spent an entire day cycling around a lake and enjoying the crisp mountain air.

Our last stop was the town of Shaxi, once an important stop on the ancient Tea-Horse Road. Walking around the peaceful villages and taking in the beautiful landscapes, we reflected on what had been the journey of a lifetime and looked forward to starting the next chapter of our lives in Kunming.

Sasha stuck around an extra couple of days to check out the weekly market, which was well worth it. Just like that, our epic gap year had come to an end.

Our Gap Year Summary

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The countries we visited on the Asian portion of our trip.

To quote the good ole’ Grateful Dead, our gap year was a long, strange trip to say the very least. In fact, we were having so much fun that we decided one year wasn’t quite long enough. Here’s what we managed to pack into our gap year:

  • 14 months
  • 9 countries
  • 15 American states
  • 8 national parks
  • 15 Phish shows
  • 6 MLB games
  • 2 college football games
  • 50+ bus rides
  • 14 flights
  • 9 train rides
  • 4 epic motorbike trips
  • 1 music festival

It was a dream come true and the end result of a few years of busting our asses teaching English in China, dealing with the culture shock, and learning to speak Chinese.

Planning, saving, and budgeting for a gap year is no easy task, but if we can do it, so can you! Hopefully, we’ve convinced you to take a leap of faith, get out of your comfort zone, and see the world.

If you’re still on the fence, ask yourself a few questions to find out if you should take a gap year.

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